As I've mentioned before, one of the classes I'm taking this semester is on the book of Exodus. In addition to translation work and reading through our textbook (Exodus, by Terence Fretheim, part of the Interpretation commentary series), we are doing small projects throughout the semester based on the different sections of the Exodus text we are examining. This week, the text is Exodus chapter one; and my assignment was to consider the socio-historical context surrounding this first chapter of the book. Now, if you grab your Bible and read the first chapter of Exodus, or read it on your computer through the wonders of the internet, you'll notice a few obvious questions regarding socio-historical context. The first group of questions would revolve around Pharaoh and his oppression of the people of Israel—who is this Pharaoh, when did he rule, where are Pithom and Rameses located, what was it like to work on these projects, etc. The second group has to do with those midwives—how were midwives understood in Ancient Egypt, what was their role in giving birth, and what's up with that birthing stool? Well, you're about to find out. [Note: if you happen to be in my Exodus class, or perhaps are the professor of my Exodus class, consider this your spoiler alert.]
So, the questions about Pharaoh first. As the commentaries on Exodus will tell you, the book of Exodus provides very little historical detail that would allow readers to date the story. The name of the Pharaoh in question is not even mentioned. Combine that with the fact that there is no extra-Biblical evidence of the Exodus (that is, no records from Egypt or anywhere else that relate the same details of this narrative), and it's apparent why the historical context would be difficult to establish. However, the cities of Pithom and Rameses (or Pi-Rameses, the prefix "pi" means "city of") are real places, and the garrisons were built under the reign of Pharaohs living in the 14th and 13th centuries BCE. This suggests that the pharaoh mentioned in Exodus 1 might be Rameses II, known as Rameses the Great, though this conclusion is by no means certain. Rameses II is known for his extensive and elaborate building projects, which he preferred to construct using foreign labor (Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 2, page 697). There are Egyptian documents relating the harsh life of physical laborers, so we can imagine that the oppression of the people of Israel was very severe.
As for the story about the midwives also brings up questions regarding birth practices in Ancient Egypt. Luckily for me, the seminary librarian is an Egyptologist, and he was happy to share his knowledge on the subject. For one, the "birth stool" (or "delivery stool") is not like the stool you might imagine for births today—a wide stool with a big hole in the middle that the woman can sit on. Rather, the Ancient Egyptian birth stool would be more like a birth brick; it was a rectangular object which would have been on the ground, less for sitting on and more to keep the mother and child out of the dirt. In fact, Ancient Egypt had a goddess of the birth stool, who was a brick with a face on it. You can see it in the famous papyrus from the Book of the Dead: she's the little black rectangle just above the figure in the center, to the left of Anubis (the jackal-headed god). As for midwives, there wasn't a profession of "midwife" as there is in some cultures, but it was assumed that several women would be present at the birth to help the mother and child through what was clearly a dangerous event. For the Hebrew midwives in the Exodus narrative to say that the Hebrew women were so hearty that they needed no help giving birth was obviously a jab at the Egyptians, whose women were so weak by comparison.
It's remarkable to me how much can be drawn out of a very short Biblical text; in just a few verses, there is a world of information and questions to be found. What I have written here barely scratches the surface of socio-historical context, not to mention the theological or literary aspects of the text. Still, this is at least an introduction to the kind of socio-historical questions that can be investigated in a text like Exodus.